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Michigan Prisons Hosting California Prisoners

STANDISH, Mich. - These days, a new mural graces the walls of Six Block. At the end of each tier of 22 maximum-security cells, the white cinderblock walls sport the bright logos of teams the residents follow: the Detroit Pistons, Michigan State, the Detroit Red Wings. The inmate who painted them all recently added one more: the purple and yellow logo of the Los Angeles Lakers.

The new artwork is part of the prison's marketing campaign to lure California inmates - and save Michigan jobs.

Trying to close a $1.2 billion budget gap, Michigan corrections officials don't want to spend $31 million a year to run Standish Maximum Correctional Facility when they have room for the inmates at other facilities in the state. But Standish, with a workforce of 344 people, is the biggest employer in rural Arenac County, 140 miles north of Detroit. In a state already gut-punched by recession, no one wants to lose those jobs.

So the state put out the word to its 49 neighbors: relieve prison overcrowding by sending your inmates to Michigan. It's now working on a deal with California, where prisons are so overpopulated that on Aug. 4 a court ordered the state to reduce its prison population by 40,000 inmates within two years.

In addition, Gov. Jennifer Granholm said that Standish may be chosen as a place to relocate detainees from the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - though she said California inmates would be preferable.

The Michigan corrections department spruced up Standish with a thorough scrubbing and fresh paint and welcomed a delegation from California last month. Federal officials visited Thursday.

"If you're going to market yourself, you've got to clean up," Warden Thomas Birkett said.

Michigan said it can save California money: Its cost per prisoner is $32,000 a year, compared with $45,000 a year in California. It's willing to accommodate as many as 2,500 California prisoners by "double-bunking" inmates at Standish, two per cell, and at a second prison in Muskegon, 126 miles southwest.

"Have the governor buy them a winter coat and send them to Standish," Mayor Kevin King said.

Strapped budgets

California already houses more than 7,600 prisoners in privately run prisons in four states. Michigan's proposal is "the first time we are taking a serious look at a public prison system from another state," corrections department spokesman Seth Unger said.

California officials are determining whether housing prisoners in Michigan could satisfy court mandates on providing medical care for California prisoners, Unger said.

The price tag also is a "key concern," he said. California faces a $39 billion budget gap for fiscal year 2010. Michigan said the cost to house California prisoners would be $60 million annually.

Michigan, which has reduced its prison population 8 percent since 2006, also plans to close @seven @other facilities, cutting up to 1,000 jobs statewide.

Cities that once lobbied against having prisons now fight to keep them, corrections spokesman Russ Marlan said. "We can't incarcerate people to create jobs. That's not what prisons are for. But that's what it's become."

To residents of Standish, population 1,800 and a county unemployment rate more than 17 percent, the cost of losing the prison is too high to contemplate.

A homemade "Save Standish Max" placard is posted by the prison driveway, one of several similar signs that dot the town. A rally at the local Catholic Church in June, after Granholm announced Standish would close, drew about 300 people.

The prison pays the town $37,000 a month in water and sewer fees, and without that income, City Manager Michael Moran said, it won't be able to cover debt service on bonds.

Standish residents have picketed outside the prison to protest its closing. They put down their signs, however, the day California officials visited.

"We're trying to present a positive work ethic," said corrections officer John Reeves, who grew up in Standish. "Not so much the desperation, even though people might be feeling that."

A welcome opportunity

There's no new mural to greet prisoners from Guantanamo, but taking them in would be just fine with the town. It's not clear whether Standish prison guards would be replaced with federal employees or military police. President Barack Obama has ordered the Guantanamo prison to close.

"We certainly would welcome the opportunity," Moran said.

Dave Wolthuis, a retired teacher from nearby Au Gres, said: "We've had some of the worst people in the state up here in that prison without any problems."

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